Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)

Mexico Table of Contents

The PRI, Mexico's "official" party, was the country's preeminent political organization from 1929 until the early 1990s. In terms of power, it was second only to the president, who also serves as the party's effective chief. Until the early 1980s, the PRI's position in the Mexican political system was hegemonic, with opposition parties posing little or no threat to its power base or its near monopoly of public office. This situation changed during the mid-1980s, as opposition parties of the left and right began to seriously challenge PRI candidates for local, state, and national-level offices.

The PRI was founded by Calles in 1929 as the National Revolutionary Party (Partido Nacional Revolucionario--PNR), a loose confederation of local political bosses and military strongmen grouped together with labor unions, peasant organizations, and regional political parties. In its early years, it served primarily as a means of organizing and containing the political competition among the leaders of the various revolutionary factions. Calles, operating through the party organization, was able to undermine much of the strength of peasant and labor organizations that affiliated with the party and to weaken the regional military commanders who had operated with great autonomy throughout the 1920s. By 1934 Calles was in control of Mexican politics and government, even after he left the presidency, largely through his manipulation of the PNR.

Between 1934 and 1940, an intense struggle for political control developed between Calles and the new president, Cárdenas. At the time, Calles represented the conservative elements of the revolutionary coalition, while Cárdenas drew his support from the more radical political elements. To strengthen his hand against Calles, Cárdenas reunited the labor and peasant organizations that Calles had earlier fragmented and formed two national federations, the National Peasant Confederation (Confederación Nacional Campesina--CNC) and the Confederation of Mexican Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores Mexicanos--CTM). Using these organizations as the bases of his support, Cárdenas then reorganized the PNR in 1938, renaming it the Party of the Mexican Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Mexicana--PRM), incorporating the CTM and the CNC and giving the PRM an organization by sectors: labor, agrarian, popular, and military. The creation of these groups and their integration into the party marked the legitimation of the existing interest group organizations and the transformation of the political system from an elite to a mass-based system. Within a year, the PRM claimed some 4.3 million members: 2.5 million peasants, 1.3 million workers, and 500,000 in the popular sector. In 1946 President Manuel Ávila Camacho abolished the military sector, shifted its members into the popular sector, and renamed the party the PRI.

Beginning with the Cárdenas administration in the late 1930s, the PRI and its predecessors engineered an unprecedented political peace. The overt political intervention by the military that had characterized the country's politics throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries largely disappeared when Ávila Camacho, the last president who came from a military background, left office in 1946. For nearly five decades, there were few episodes of large-scale organized violence and no revolutionary movements that enjoyed widespread support, despite considerable economic strains between 1968 and 1975 and a difficult period of economic austerity beginning in 1982.

For the middle class, whose members typically had led rebellions in the past, the PRI provided upward mobility either through politics (the rule of no reelection opened frequent opportunities for public office) or through business during the high-growth period of "stabilizing development" that lasted from the early 1950s until the late 1960s. The PRI also integrated workers and peasants into the political system by claiming to be the only vehicle able to realize their demands for labor union rights and land reform. The party operated much like an urban political machine in the United States. It weakened attempts to form horizontal class- or interest-based political alliances within the lower class by dispensing services to individuals in exchange for their votes. The PRI emphasized personal relationships between individuals of the lower class and party and government officials. It distributed political patronage from the top down to members of organized labor, the agrarian movement, and the popular sector in accordance with each group's relative strength in a given area. Finally, it used electoral fraud, corruption, bribery, and repression when necessary to maintain control over individuals and groups.

The PRI has been widely described as a coalition of networks of aspiring politicians seeking not only positions of power and prestige but also the concomitant opportunity for personal enrichment. At the highest levels of the political system, the major vehicles for corruption have been illegal landholdings and the manipulation of public-sector enterprises. In the lower reaches of the party and governmental hierarchies, the preferred methods of corruption have been bribery, charging the public for legally free public services, charging members of unions for positions, nepotism, and outright theft of public money. This corruption, although condemned by Mexican and foreign observers alike, historically served an important function in the political system by providing a means of upward mobility within the system and ensuring that those who were forced to retire from politics by the principle of no reelection would have little incentive to seek alternatives outside the PRI structure.

Official corruption reached unprecedented levels during the 1970s when petroleum revenues surged as a result of higher oil prices and when newly discovered oil fields in Chiapas and the Bahía de Campeche began producing. Much of the wealth that flowed into the country through the state oil monopoly, Mexican Petroleum (Petróleos Mexicanos--Pemex), was squandered in wasteful and unnecessary projects and the inflation of payrolls. The main beneficiaries of high-level graft during this period were the senior executives of the national oil workers union and high-level PRI functionaries. This brand of official corruption reached new heights during the presidency of López Portillo (1976-82), who allegedly acquired a US$2 million house as a "gift" from the oil workers' union and was subsequently vilified by the media and the public as a symbol of PRI graft.

Public disclosure of the excesses of the López Portillo years, which came to light during the severe financial crisis of the early 1980s, had a significant impact on the PRI's internal politics as well as on its overall level of public support. Internally, the severe public backlash against the PRI discredited many career politicians within the party who had personally benefited from the fiscal profligacy of the López Portillo sexenio , and created opportunities for an emerging generation of técnicos (technocrats) to assume high-level government posts. Many of these técnicos were brought into the cabinet by President de la Madrid to help restore the integrity of the public accounts during the early 1980s financial crisis.

During the de la Madrid sexenio (1982-88), the PRI began to downplay its traditional populist and nationalist agenda and adopted a probusiness, free-market platform. These changes produced an intraparty split between the populist wing dominated by políticos (career politicians) and the politically inexperienced técnicos . The nomination of Salinas, a Harvard-educated political economist, as the PRI candidate for the 1988 presidential election triggered the final rupture between these two groups. Salinas's nomination prompted two important party leaders, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (the son of President Cárdenas and himself a former governor of Michoacán) and Porfirio Muñoz Ledo (a former PRI secretary general), to resign from the PRI and create a broad coalition of leftist parties, labor unions, and grassroots organizations united in support of a presidential bid by Cárdenas (see Party of the Democratic Revolution, this ch.). This leftist faction criticized the "neoliberal" policies of the de la Madrid government and called for a return to the party's traditional populist platform.

Although the PRI party bosses remained loyal to Salinas, allowing the party to win the July 1988 presidential election, the 1988 vote was a major psychological blow to the ruling party. With the 1988 vote, the PRI saw its fifty-year dominance over the political system come to an almost disastrous end. The PRI received its lowest margin of victory ever, a dubious 50.7 percent of all votes cast, down from 71.6 percent in 1982 and 98.7 percent in 1976. For the first time since the consolidation of single-party rule in the 1940s, opposition leaders were elected to the Senate, and the PRI lost more than one-third of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies to the two main opposition forces, the National Action Party (Partido de Acción Nacional--PAN) and the Cárdenas-led coalition. The results of the 1988 elections were widely viewed as marking the end of single-party hegemony by the PRI and were even interpreted by some observers as a prelude to the fragmentation and collapse of the ruling coalition.

Responding to public pressure for political renewal and seeking to avoid further rupture in the party ranks, President Salinas attempted to improve the PRI's public image without fundamentally challenging its authoritarian and clientelist practices. Salinas took steps to clean up the electoral process and moved forcefully against those elements of the party and organized labor most closely associated with corruption. However, Salinas's anticorruption efforts were by no means systematic. In many instances, corrupt officials were dismissed because of their defiance of the new president rather than for their venality. Although he continued de la Madrid's practice of tapping highly trained technocrats to fill cabinet posts, Salinas took care not to completely disavow the party's político wing in filling high-level posts. In addition, the new president shrewdly manipulated state resources through popular programs, such as Pronasol, in order to recover the support of low-income Mexicans who had backed Cárdenas in 1988.

President Salinas's political maneuvers and a modest economic recovery resulted in a better showing for the PRI in the midterm elections of August 1991. In the races for 300 electoral districts in the Chamber of Deputies, thirty-two Senate seats, and six governorships, the PRI won 61.4 percent of the votes cast. This was a sizable increase from the 50 percent received in the 1988 national election. Overall, the PRI won 290 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, all but one seat in the Senate, and five of the six contested governorships.

During his administration, Salinas downplayed the corporatist relationships between the state and society instituted by Cárdenas while reaching out to more traditional interest groups. In his efforts to broaden and democratize the PRI, Salinas distanced the party from the PRI-affiliated labor unions and ejido associations, while seeking a reconciliation between the PRI and its historical adversaries, such as foreign investors, agribusiness, private banks, the Roman Catholic Church, and export industries. In foreign affairs, the PRI shed much of its economic nationalism under Salinas, while retaining its independence from the United States on regional security matters. However, even President Salinas was unwilling to seek a constitutional amendment to end public ownership of petroleum and natural gas deposits, a mainstay of PRI nationalism for more than sixty years.

The executive organization of the PRI is pyramidal, with the president of the Republic at the top. The party is headed by a president and a secretary general, who together direct a National Executive Committee of the party's top leaders. At the party base, there is a National Assembly, which meets every six years to discuss and review the party's platform as well as to formally nominate the party's candidate for the presidency. The National Assembly also elects the members of the National Executive Council. Although the party's presidential candidate is formally nominated at the National Assembly Congress, in practice the assembly has served only to ratify the candidate handpicked by the president through the dedazo . In accordance with political reforms approved in the early 1990s, the PRI's National Assembly is expected to assume a much more significant role in nominating the party's presidential candidate for the election to be held in the year 2000.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress